Helen Woodward Animal Center expansion begins


The Helen Woodward Animal Center is getting closer to its own forever home, finally breaking ground on its center expansion that will include a long-awaited, new and improved adoptions building.

A small groundbreaking ceremony was held at the Rancho Santa Fe facility on Jan. 14 with Helen Woodward’s daughters, Win Rhodes and Marcia Constance, and Woodward’s grandson, Emery Rhodes, in attendance.

“We are beyond thrilled to embark into this massive next phase for the center, it’s truly a dream come true,” said Renee Resko, Helen Woodward Animal Center vice president of development “We are as excited for our staff and adopters as we are for the orphan dogs and cats that come through our doors each year. The new facility will provide the type of enclosures that will not only be incredibly comfortable for these pets, but it will also make it easier to show them off and get them into their new forever homes more quickly, allowing us to increase the number of animals we serve.”

Back in 1972 Helen Woodward, a native Californian and Del Mar resident for 40 years, bought an old 12-acre Rancho Santa Fe farm covered with weeds with a little house and falling-down barn to establish the San Dieguito Animal Care and Education Center. Many of the center’s structures were built after her death in 1983 and the center was renamed in her honor in 1986.

When the first adoptions building was constructed in 1972, the center was finding homes for about 300 pets annually. More than 45 years later, approximately 3,500 orphan pets receive life-saving medical care and placement in forever homes annually, despite its staff working in the same building and facilities.

“It’s time,” said Communications Director Jessica Gercke of the old building, which had been modified several times over the years, taking advantage of every little space, nook and cranny to accommodate their growing needs. “It has done its job, it’s saved a lot of lives and it’s ready to retire.”

The new adoptions building will include a “more aesthetically pleasing” and inviting lobby and adoptions area, more efficient and private entrance for transfers bringing in animals and kennels that will be completely enclosed to protect pets from the weather while allowing easy cleaning and access by the staff.

In the old building, a closet was reconfigured to serve as the adoption surgery room—a single surgery table served as the sole location to perform thousands of surgeries a year. As the center accepts 95 percent of its orphan pets from animal shelters around the country the room was constantly in use for the required physical and behavioral exams upon entry, as well as vaccinations and spay/neuter surgeries.

The new building will bring a second exam room and a larger surgical suite with room for two surgery tables that can be utilized simultaneously.

“The new building will give us the opportunity to serve so many more animals… we’ll be able to double the amount of animals we can take in,” said Mindy Wright, communications assistant manager. “It’s going to be pretty amazing once it’s done.”

Wright admitted that there will be challenges during the construction but she has been impressed with how the staff has come together to make the transition as smooth as possible.

During construction, the animal center will remain open for adoptions in an interim area called “The Adoptions Village” at the back of the site, accessed off Helen Woodward Way on San Dieguito Road.

The old house on the property, used for children’s education programs, has been reconfigured to serve as the adoptions office and to house the adoptable cats. The cats are all cozied together with about the same amount of room as they had in the old building. The Paws in the Ranch pet boutique store is also located in the new “village,” which will also soon include a new temporary play yard for people to run around with the adoptable pets.

The village has 18 interim dog kennels that are enclosed, temperature controlled and comfortable for the pups. The 18 kennels bring the center down from about 50 they had in the old adoptions area.

“It’s a big difference and we will really need to depend on our fosters because we’re not going to have the same amount of space to keep puppies and kittens,” Gercke said.

The center is looking for foster families of all types from overnight housing to longer term stays — the center provides all of the supplies needed to care for the animals as well as for any medical needs, check-ups or health issues. If interested in fostering, visit to learn more and fill out an application.

As the center grows, it is also expanding its efforts elsewhere. In November last year Helen Woodward launched Pets Without Walls, a program dedicated to helping the San Diego homeless population and their pets, providing food, vaccinations, spays and neuters, pet supplies and additional services to those that live at the city of San Diego’s industrial tent site downtown.

The Lucky Duck Foundation also helped facilitate the purchase of a mobile spay and neuter clinic this January which the center will be able to use with Pets Without Walls and other initiatives.

“We’re reaching outward to help because the space we have is limited,” Gercke said. “We’re trying to make our impact out in the world bigger as we go through this transition.”